Not all performance is created equally. Now is the time of year where professional money managers jockey for position before year-end, either with the intent of locking in above-average performance or throwing up a Hail Mary pass in hopes of gaining lost performance ground. Typically, top performing managers are lauded for their eye-popping returns and shrewd investing acumen, when in fact, often these managers have been playing a game of roulette in which a risky, low probability strategy of betting on “green zero” has paid off (a winner about 2.6% of the time).
With tens of thousands hedge fund managers, mutual fund managers, and investment advisors self-reporting their results, even if the performance is accurate, the “Law of Large Numbers” dictates a small percentage will outperform. In other words, short-term luck can often trump long-term skill in the investment world, so investors really need to take a look under the covers to better understand the composition of the results.
Here are some factors contributing to performance distortions and misunderstandings:
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Leverage: Adding leverage to your investment strategy is a lot like switching from a bicycle to a motorcycle. The new vehicle may get you to your destination faster, but the risks are lot higher than riding a bike, including death. The same principles apply to investing. A leveraged portfolio may be a fun ride when prices appreciate, but the agony on the downside can be equally painful in reverse. Often, many managers obscure the amount of leverage, and point to absolute returns rather than risk-adjusted returns, which rightfully account for the underlying volatility of the security or investment. To better measure investment performance on an apples-to-apples basis, risk-adjusted ratios such as Sharpe ratios and Treynor ratios should be used.
Concentration/Style Drift: Similarly to playing a game of roulette, putting all your money on black can result in a very handsome payout, but the downside can be just as severe. In the late 1990s growth managers benefited tremendously by concentrating their portfolios into technology stocks because prices appreciated virtually unabated. Many value managers succumbed to style drift by abandoning their value investment mandates and chasing performance. Investors should scrutinize the composition of their portfolios to better comprehend the bets managers are making. Excessive concentration or style drift may lead to a rude awakening.
Benchmark Cherry Picking: Buried in the fine print of an investment prospectus or pitchbook, a performance benchmark, which acts like a measuring stick, can usually be found. The non-standardized game of performance reporting is a lot like a beauty contest in which the investment manager can pick ugly competitors to make themselves look better. Typically a manager compares their performance against the worst performing benchmark or index, and if the benchmark performance improves, a manager can again substitute the old benchmark with a newer, uglier one.
Spaghetti Effect: Another misleading marketing strategy used by many investment firms is what I like to call the “Throwing-Spaghetti-Against-the-Wall” technique, which involves throwing as many strategies at investors as it takes and see what sticks. Famed hedge fund manager John Paulson, who made Herculean profits during the collapse of the subprime crisis, used this strategy in hopes of capitalizing on his sudden fame. The results haven’t been pretty over the last few years as his major funds have massively underperformed and assets have collapsed from about $38 billion at the peak to less than an estimated $20 billion now. Paulson has proved that parlaying one successful bet into many spaghetti throwing strategies (Advantage, Advantage Plus, Partners Fund, Enhanced Fund, Credit Opportunities, and Recovery) can lead to billions in gained assets, albeit shrinking.
Window-Dressing: Portfolio managers are notorious for selling their stinkers and buying the darlings at the end of a quarter, just so they can avoid uncomfortable questions from investors. By analyzing a manager’s portfolio turnover (i.e., the average holding period for a position), an investor can gauge how much shuffling is really going on. Generally speaking, managers performing this value-destroying, smoke and mirrors behavior are doing more harm than good due to all the trading costs and frictions.
While periodically reviewing absolute reported returns is important, more critical than that is analyzing the risk-adjusted returns of a portfolio, so apples-to-apples comparisons can be made. Any and all strategies are bound to underperform for periods of time, but in order to make rational investment decisions investors need to truly understand the underlying strategy and philosophy of the manager(s). Without following all these steps, investors will have better luck putting their money on green.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
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